The earliest known blades are 500,000 years old, predating written history, the Ice Age and humanity itself. An unknown human ancestor carved the first blades out of a lava stone in what is now Kenya. Archeologists uncovered the blade in 2009, and it could signify a revolutionary shift in human cognition that archeologists previously believed occurred hundreds of thousands of years later. But as important, it reveals something obvious about the human condition: stabbing and slicing is ingrained in our DNA.
No chef is without a knife set, no gardener is without sheers and no soldier, even in today's militaries of projectiles, artillery and armored vehicles, is without some kind of blade. Warfare may have evolved, but the fascination with a more primal form of combat still exists today. In Bend, duelists at The 1595 Club meet weekly to practice Historical European Martial Arts, often referred to as HEMA.
The club is named after the year Vincentio Saviolo, an Italian immigrant to England and rapier specialist, published the book "His Practice" that instructed readers on swordplay and dueling etiquette. It's one of the first books on fencing to be authored in English, and was controversial in its time among Englishmen, who had their own distinct style of swordfighting. Chris Chatfield founded the 1959 club in 2002 in Brighton, United Kingdon, initially to interpret and implement Saviolo's lessons. It has since broadened in scope to encompass other styles of HEMA and now consists of nine chapters in the U.K., Italy, New Zealand and the United States — with a Bend Chapter forming in 2018.
The Bend chapter's coach and organizer, Eric Artzt, practiced traditional Eastern martial arts in the 1980s, first with Cuong Nhu Karate then Wing Chun — a style of Karate popularized by Bruce Lee. In 2010 he began studying and coaching HEMA in Seattle, focusing on the longsword. After moving to Bend he wanted to continue his training but didn't have any sparring partners to stab at.
"I co-founded a large sword fighting club in Seattle, and when I moved here, I just wanted to connect with folks and have training partners," said Eric Artzt, the coach and organizer of the Bend-area 1595 Club. "It's no fun to stab your friends with swords if they can't fight back properly!"
The group meets on Tuesdays at 5:30 at the Masonic Lodge to train in fencing and self-defense. Though beginners may be reluctant to clash steel with trained swordfighters, Artzt says the environment is welcoming to all skill levels.
"Our curriculum is beginner friendly and basic, but there are many levels and nuances. So, an intermediate or advanced practitioner can work on higher-level skills that they understand, while a novice student is just learning the basic movements and concepts," Artzt said. "We take newcomers through some basic exercises and patterns, and within one class they are crossing swords with classmates and even sparring. I want them to go home after their first practice feeling like they were swordfighting just like in the movies."
Though HEMA may look like the sport of fencing, it's distinct in that HEMA is rooted in historical combat manuals and treatises that survived from the late Middle Ages and early modern period. Fencing evolved from a 19th-Century style of fencing, but its point-scoring system de-emphasizes blows that would've injured or killed an opponent in a real sword fight. HEMA isn't its own martial arts; rather it's an umbrella term for weapon-based combat consisting of many different regional schools.
"What we do is different from the fencing you see in the Olympics. Ours is more closely rooted to the historical traditions. It is not really a sport, although you might call it a game," Artzt said. "Back in the 16th Century, folks enjoyed doing this activity as well. And there were clubs just like today. But the stakes were higher. Medical care was primitive by today's standards. And sometimes people actually had to use their skills in combat, whether in a duel, in street self-defense or in wartime."
The game does get physical, and combatants do end up hitting each other. Since the class uses real steel weapons, Artzt says the emphasis in his classes is on timing, physics and control rather than brute force.
"We use steel training weapons and we hit each other. So excellent control and care is necessary. Every practice needs to end with folks healthier than when they arrived," Artzt said. "We can do full-speed sparring without heavy contact. I'm not getting kicked or punched. I'm 60 now. I did that in my 20s and 30s and am kind of done with getting punched in the head."
HEMA is based on thousands of years of knowledge but has only existed for a few decades. The treatises and manuals that inform the practices are deeply studied but divorced from the original practitioners of the art. This reconstruction is niche but growing in size. In the '90s only a handful of renaissance reenactors practiced it, but now one can find clubs on every continent.
Artzt invites anyone interested in getting involved in HEMA to contact him at 541-241-6742.